“We certainly have a long way to go, but it’s a good start.” – Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan
As recent as 2012, the Atlanta Falcons were the team to beat in the NFC South. They wanted the Lombardi Trophy but settled on an impressive 13-3 record and falling just short of the Super Bowl. It was a proud year for the Falcons, but they’ve yet to get anywhere close to that level of success in subsequent years. Lack of a defensive identity was the beginning of the end, and really the only positive of their entire 2014 season was the nationally televised beatdown they administered to a bumbling group of Buccaneers one Thursday night. The Falcons know they’ve got issues, and they’re clearly trying to address them. Here’s where they still hold strong, and the spots where there’s plenty of work left to do.
Strengths: Matt Ryan, Offensive Line, and New Regime
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly why, but I don’t like Matt Ryan. I often feel he’s overrated, but arguments could even be made that he’s underrated at times. No matter what your opinion is, the numbers speak for themselves. Ryan has thrown for over 4,000 yards in each of his last four seasons. He’s consistently a Top 10 Quarterback in almost every statistical category, and the only man with more pass attempts in 2014 than Matt Ryan was fellow NFC South gunslinger Drew Brees. In the past, the offensive line has not been up to par in Atlanta. Ryan was sacked 44 times in 2013, but that number dropped to 33 in 2014.
The foundation of this line lies in future Hall of Famer Left Tackle Jake Matthews of the Matthews Football Dynasty. He’s returning from a successful foot surgery and has been unimpeded thus far. Starting center Joe Hawley is returning from a knee injury, and Atlanta brought veteran left guard Chris Chester in from Washington. All of these pieces fit into a puzzle that has been reworked from the top down. That started with new head coach Dan Quinn and led to new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He’ll be bringing an emphasis on the run and a zone blocking scheme that, barring more major injuries, should help the offensive line improve significantly.
Weaknesses: Defense, Tight End, and Rushing Attack
I’m going to start at the back end of these three because it probably feels counterintuitive based on the last thing I said. Kyle Shanahan’s arrival means that there is an undeniable buzz about the Falcons finally being balanced and having a running game. That sounds nice, but I don’t see it happening right away. The race for starter will be between rookie Tevin Coleman and incumbent Devonta Freeman. Both have the skill, but neither has shown just yet they can be an every down back. Most of the hope for the running game lies with Kyle Shanahan, and I wouldn’t trust, or fear, Atlanta’s rushing attack until the offensive line is absolutely unbreakable and one of these two emerges as a game changer.
A few short years ago, Tampa Bay had to worry about dealing with deadly tight ends at least six times throughout the season. Between Jimmy Graham in New Orleans, Greg Olsen in Carolina, and Tony Gonzales in Atlanta, there was a lot to fear. Now, only one player from that NFC South trifecta remains. Atlanta has struggled to replace Gonzales, and there’s still no clear savior. The acquisitions of veterans Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki were smart and Levine Toilolo has been respectable, but none have proven their ability to anchor an offense at tight end. With the importance of the position in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme, there are high expectations they may not be able to meet.
Meanwhile, the greatest weakness in Atlanta hasn’t changed a single bit from 2014 to 2015. There are signs it could, but for right now the Falcons defense is still in shambles. Dan Quinn is trying to change that, but keep in mind that a defensive guru doesn’t mean an immediate turnaround. The Buccaneers had more playmakers on defense when Lovie arrived than Atlanta does now, and it still took some time to settle. Atlanta has a few solid pieces and some rookie potential, but nowhere near what it’s going to need to compete at a playoff level again. Atlanta has made progress, but it’s unlikely this defense is fixed in one season.
Verdict: When it comes to matching up against the Atlanta Falcons, I’m eager to see Jaboo and the Boys go to work against their incomplete defense. With that being said, the problem last year was not what the defense did to Tampa. The problem was what the offense did, and it did so mercilessly. Atlanta’s offense is only stronger coming into this season, and Matt Ryan is still a consistent playmaker. In order to win, Tampa’s pass rush will have to come all guns blazing against Atlanta’s upgraded offensive line. It starts with keeping Matt Ryan grounded and his weapons in check, but that will be no easy task. Like both other teams in the NFC South, the pieces are there for Tampa Bay to compete against and defeat the Atlanta Falcons. They can, but will they?
This concludes the Know Thy Enemy series for the NFC South. I’m well aware that these three teams are not ones most Tampa Bay fans like, and I’m right there with y’all. However, you have to know what you’re up against. In order for the Buccaneers to be successful in 2015, they need to win within the division. The pieces are there, but we will have to wait and see how things turn out. Next week, I have one more special entry in the Know Thy Enemy series. The Buccaneers will open the 2015 regular season against the Tennessee Titans and quarterback Marcus Mariota. Not too long ago, the hype was to have Mariota here in Tampa. It’ll be a treat to see what could be the first of many NFL collisions between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.